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World: Forum 2000 -- Terrorism High On Agenda Of Human Rights Conference

  • Jolyon Naegele

The issue of terrorism is high on the agenda of a human rights conference under way in Prague this week.

Prague, 16 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The issue of terrorism in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks on the United States has hijacked the discussion on human rights at the fifth annual Forum 2000 conference taking place in Prague this week.

Czech President Vaclav Havel is a co-sponsor of the conference, which brings together leading intellectuals, including Nobel peace and literature laureates. Havel said last month's attack has had a dramatic effect on almost all aspects of life, including the conference's attendance.

"This is a difficult, dramatic time. Many are canceling their trips [to Prague] while many others, on the contrary, say they will participate after all, after earlier saying they would not come."

In his opening address on the evening of 14 October in Prague Castle's 500-year-old Vladislav Hall, Havel said the suicide attacks on the United States "have given [the] conference and the subjects on its agenda an added urgency."

"There have always been fanatics, mass murderers, and terrorists," Havel continued. "But never have they had such a gigantic possibility to strike the entire planet and to threaten so many human lives." He added, "It is necessary to understand this sign, and to give thought to how the global advance of civilization, the extensive technological progress, and the growth of human invention can be accompanied by a deepening sense of a global human responsibility."

Another conference organizer, Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, humanities professor at Boston University, noted that although globalization had been the key issue at most international meetings for years, "even in our darkest dream, we could not imagine that evil too could become globalized."

"Well, on 11 September we woke up. 11 September will remain in history as a scar, a threat, a watershed. There is now a 'before' and an 'after.' After 11 September nothing is the same, nor should it be. The abyss of fanaticism, we realize, is still open and its name is now terrorism. Since the origins of its dark reign during the French Revolution, it has spread fear and destruction in many lands before reaching and trying to dismantle the enviable democracy of America."

Wiesel says terrorism's goal is not only to attain power but to force innocent people to give up their pride, dreams, and dignity and to frighten them to the point of stifling what he called their most "precious aspiration" -- their desire for hope and freedom. In Wiesel's words, "terrorism is alive and it constitutes the supreme violation of human rights." But resignation, he added, "is never an answer."

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, in his address to the Prague gathering, suggested that the 11 September attacks redefined the challenges for the 21st century.

"The United States, to be sure, has not had a perfect record in the world and we can be criticized. But I think it's important to note that we are dealing here with a basic struggle for the fundamental character of the 21st century."

Clinton added, "If we want a world which has more human rights and more global responsibility, the world has to have people who are free to exercise those rights, who have a genuine opportunity to realize them." Clinton concluded by saying it is the obligation of the world's wealthier countries to increase the benefits and reduce the burdens of life in the 21st century.

U.S. political scientist Francis Fukuyama, author of the bestseller "The End of History and the Last Man," says the present conflict is not a clash of civilizations but rather "a rearguard [social and political resistance] action by parts of the world that are threatened by that ongoing process of modernization. It is a process that we must take seriously in both security and moral terms."

Fukuyama says human rights should be understood as a moral expression of civilization in theory, and in practice, should be applied "with a certain degree of flexibility and prudence."

"I think that anyone objectively looking at the way we are talking about rights in the West would have to admit that it is a big mess. There has been a multiplication of rights that we seek over the past few decades. For example, in the United States a generation ago, we began with advocacy of equal rights for racial minorities and for women. That advocacy has since spread to the handicapped, to indigenous people, [to] the rights of the accused, to gays, [to] the right to life, [to] the right to die -- and beyond human rights there are powerful advocates for the rights of animals. And amidst this ever-increasing explosion of rights, I think there are a number of grounds for confusion."

Fukuyama says one important cause of that confusion is what he terms "the constant tendency towards the inflation of rights."

Exiled Iraqi Islamic scholar Sheik Mohammed Mohammed Ali is the founder of the London-based Iraqi National Congress Leadership Council. He spoke about human rights from the Islamic perspective, saying that the 11 September attacks were against all religions, including Islam. He says the perpetrators of the attacks belong to a cult, not to a religion, and that the attacks were "an attack on our shared civilization."

"Abuses of human rights in so-called Islamic countries like Afghanistan -- or for that matter Iraq, which is my country -- no more reflect Islam's view of human rights than did the practices of [Spanish inquisitor] Torquemada and the inquisition in the Middle Ages or the Nazis in Germany reflect the Christian doctrine or respect for human rights."

As Sheikh Ali put it: "It is individuals -- be they Muslims, Christians, Jews, Tamils, or Hindus -- who may abuse human rights, not the theological doctrines themselves." To understand Islam's view of human rights, he says, one must start with one key difference between Islamic political thought and Western political thought -- the concept of sovereignty.

Sheikh Ali said, "The abuses of human rights in Muslim countries are not based on the fundamental doctrines of Islam," adding such abuses "continue to take place for political reasons." The perpetrators of such abuses, he said, use Islam as a way to "legitimize" their behavior.

The Mideast conflict is often mentioned as a prime source of dissent between the Western and Islamic worlds. Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told the Forum 2000 audience that Israel favors an independent Palestinian state. But he called on his former negotiating partner, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, to rein in people who aim their guns at Israel.

"We want to see an independent Palestinian state successful, flourishing. We think that the better the Palestinians will have it, the better neighbor we shall have."

Peres, who jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize with Arafat and the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1994, added: "Nothing can substitute in the modern age for good relations -- neither guns nor tanks nor fences nor walls. What we want is to establish a new rapport with our neighbors."